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Cast of Soviet, U.S. Teen-Agers : Ojai's Musical 'Peace Child' Has International Message

July 14, 1988|JEFF GORDINIER | Times Staff Writer

The phone rang for what must have been the 60th time that morning.

"Don't ask me how I feel today," said David Friedlander, his voice straining as if on the verge of laryngitis. In his office, a converted barn in Oak View filled with books on the nuclear arms race, Friedlander was awaiting the arrival of the 30 young Soviet and American actors who will make their debut at Ojai's Libbey Bowl at 7:30 p.m. tonight.

"I would like to think that everything that might happen is thought out," said Friedlander, the coordinator for the 1988 "Peace Child" tour of Southern California, "but the things that are thought out don't happen. I don't think you can shield yourself. You just roll with it."

Posters had been printed with the wrong dates. Funding efforts hadn't brought the production into the black. And the day before the harried morning of the troupe's June 30 arrival, Friedlander had received a call from Los Angeles saying that reservations to perform at the 1,400-seat Embassy Theater had mysteriously dissolved.

"That set the wheels of panic in motion," he said.

Though the jolt turned out to be the result of miscommunication, it represented one more bureaucratic obstacle for Friedlander. In his office, a room full of shrieking phones and tired volunteers, the heavy-framed Friedlander, after a year of planning to present "Peace Child" in Ojai, looked like a worn linebacker.

"Peace Child," a musical written by David Woolcombe and David Gordon, was first performed in London in 1981, and first by a joint Soviet and American cast in both countries in 1986. Since then, the Peace Child Foundation in Fairfax, Va., has facilitated the production of more than 500 versions in eight countries, including a local "Peace Child" that sold out five nights in Ojai last year.

This year, more than 400 American teen-agers auditioned for 130 international slots. Six teen-agers from Ventura County got parts.

Though the play's script is flexible and does not always examine the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union (there are also productions in Ireland and Central America), such is the focus of the Southern California tour, which visits Ojai, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Irvine and San Diego.

In 1987, "Peace Child" actors expressed hope that bigwigs from the two superpowers would meet. Such a plea has become passe in the wake of talks between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, so this year's version is a forum on the common stereotypes of each nation.

And unlike the last Ojai show, in which Americans played the role of Soviets, it will include 15 Soviet teen-agers in the flesh.

Peace Activists

Friedlander and his wife, Faith, became fervent peace activists six years ago when someone baby-sitting their son, C.J., then 9 years old, told him in gory detail about the devastation of Hiroshima.

"The kid was scared to death," Friedlander said. "He had never heard about such annihilation. He would not leave our sides for three days.

"We told him we would do whatever we personally could do to see that it doesn't happen."

Soon after, the Friedlanders sold their chain of retail stores, moved from Malibu to Ojai, and joined Beyond War, an international peace group. They met Woolcombe at a Santa Barbara version of "Peace Child" and were inspired to produce the musical in Ojai.

No Distractions

Friedlander said that Ojai, being free of Los Angeles' tourist distractions, was an ideal spot for the troupe to come together, especially since the actors had only nine days of rehearsal in the cafeteria at Nordhoff High School.

"They can see the whole community in a few hours and then get down to work," he said.

Although the image of Soviet chaperones is of someone guarding their wards' ideology, the Soviet adults were more worried about their youngsters' footwear than about any urge to defect, Friedlander said.

He knew that communication, with the chaperones and stage directors from two countries each speaking their own language, would take time.

"Conflict resolution is the basis of 'Peace Child'," Friedlander said as the phone rang yet again. "If we were a dictatorship, it'd be a lot easier to get through this production in nine days.

"Hello," he answered. "You're calling about beds. Steve, I haven't found out anything about that yet. . . ."

Rehearsal Time

At a rehearsal July 7, a week before their debut, the group of teen-agers was assembled on the cafeteria floor.

"Ex-cuse me," an American girl said to a tall Soviet boy. "Where is the wa-ter foun-tain?"

Following the script, the boy pointed and began to give directions in Russian. Igor Sklar, the Soviet director of "Peace Child," leaped around the room and, with swooping flamboyant gestures, told the boy how to project his lines. In tight blue shorts and a plaid shirt, his hands swirling and restoring stray strands of hair, Sklar acted out the scene twice before going back to his chair.

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